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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Marvel’s Future

Posted on 06 March 2015 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, as we return from another hiatus, we look at the future of Marvel Studios.

marvel.event_.board_Thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy, the Phase III slate Marvel Studios released in October went from “risky” to “can’t wait to see what they do with them.” Sprinkled in with five, sure fire sequels were four riskier projects. Four projects, like GotG, that had characters and concepts that the general public were not familiar with. Phase I & II were top loaded with characters that appeared in cartoons and films before. The only one of the for new Phase III films that had anything resembling that was Doctor Strange, a character that was adapted in a 1970s TV movie that has long settled into the dustbin of history. Furthermore, one of the films has a black protagonist, another a female one, both of which are seen as risky propositions for action films by some in Hollywood.

But Guardians of the Galaxy made it seem like Marvel could do no wrong. No matter how obscure the project, no matter how risky their choices were, nothing could stop them from generating smash hits. Every film they planned on doing became can’t miss prospects. Fans started vocalizing their wishes for other Marvel characters licensed to other studios return to the fold so they can be done right. That seemed a remote possibility at best, right up until the point it happened.

Spider-manThe historic agreement between Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios pertaining to their sharing Spider-Man is often portrayed by media analysts as being mutually beneficial to both sides, but as I mentioned above, Marvel really doesn’t need any help. Conventional wisdom given was that Marvel was in desperate need of a big draw after the Iron Man, Captain America and Thor films run their course. That conventional wisdom forgets that those characters weren’t big draws when the first hit, and if Marvel made successes out of  them, they’ll make success with Black Panther,Captain Marvel and the Inhumans too.

Sony, however, went all in on Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the start of their Spidey-shared universe, top-loading the film with villains, with the full expectation that it would be a billion-dollar baby and keep the studio in Spider-man movies for the rest of the decade. When it’s grosses were only respectable and not phenomenal, the studio went into panic mode. Even though the franchise is not set for the third reboot in less than ten years, having Marvel come in on creative will keep Sony from having to figure out how to make their changes work and the cross promotion can never be bad.

But even though bringing Spider-Man back into the fold wasn’t needed by Marvel, it does make a bright future even brighter.

Marvel’s future will begin in just under two months, on May 1st, when Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theaters.

avengers2The film pits the Avengers against the iconic Marvel villain Ultron in order to save the Earth from total annihilation. Other classic Avenger characters such as Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver will be introduced in the film’s continuity. This film should make so much money that it would just make sense to keep Brink’s truck in theater lobbies to speed the money collection along.

And while Spidey is rumored to make his first appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, I have a feeling–and this is just a feeling–that the character will make an appearance in a tag scene attached to this film. Tag scenes do not have to take long to make, and while they are about 50-50 nowadays when it comes to setting up future films, what better way to tease the future than show Spidey looking at Avengers tower in a post-credits scene?

AntmanSDCCLater on this year, in July, we get Ant-Man, one of Marvel’s longest in-development properties and, it would turn out, one of its most troubled. Originally Edgar Wright’s baby, the writer/director left after he and Marvel could not agree on a direction for the film. Wright was replaced by Peyton Reed, and the film finally got a solid release date.

While I was firmly on Team Wright here, and really was looking forward to see how he would work in Marvel’s sandbox, the teaser trailer, which is essentially just a speech done by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), got me looking forward to Reed’s version. Although I will hold out final judgement until I see more from the film, it doesn’t look bad.

As for the rest of Marvel’s future that we know of goes as follows:

  • May 6, 2016- Captain America: Civil War: The third Cap film might also be a fourth Iron Man film by proxy, as Robert Downey, Jr. has signed on to play the antagonist. One hopes that the film will not follow the comic book miniseries of the same name, because the comic was a heavy-handed yet poorly thought out piece of political commentary that only worked at all because the characters played against decades of characterization. This might will also introduce Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • November 4, 2016- Doctor Strange: Benedict Cumberbatch has been signed to star in Scott Derrickson’s film which will introduce the world of magic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • May 5, 2017- Guardians of the Galaxy 2: James Gunn and all of the principals return to hopefully answer some questions raised by the first film.
  • July 28, 2017-Spider-Man: This will be distributed by Sony yet co-produced by Marvel’s Kevin Feige. It is currently in the ‘heavy rumor” period of development. All we know for sure is that the character will appear in a Marvel film before this film arrives.
  • November 3, 2017-Thor:Ragnarok: This third Thor film might be the last, as those up on Norse mythology will know by the title. This film was moved from July to accommodate the Spidey film.
  • May 4, 2018-Avengers: The Infinity War, Part 1: The first of two films that hopefully will finally set the team up against Thanos. No word if Joss Whedon will be coming back, and he has been vocal in his ambivalence to returning. Rumor has the Russo Brothers, who led Cap to his greatest success, might take the helm.
  • July 6, 2018-Black Panther: Another film long in development will finally get its time in the sun. Chadwick Boseman will have at least one, but most likely two appearances in film continuity before this arrives in theaters, so he should have a pretty good head start. No director named as of yet.
  • November 2, 2018-Captain Marvel: Marvel doesn’t have a lot of big female heroes. Captain Marvel comes close and even she got her start as a female version of a more popular male hero. The current incarnation of the character has a cult following amongst female comic book fans. Early rumors had her making an appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron as portrayed by Katee Sackhoff. Emily Blunt, Natalie Dormer and Jessica Chastain have also been named as potential candidates.
  • May 3, 2019-Avengers: The Infinity War, Part 2: The second part of the Avengers vs. Thanos fight, and potentially the last time we’ll see Iron Man, Thor and Captain America on film for a while, or at least with the same actors playing them.
  • July 12, 2019-The Inhumans: Announced as being in development at the same time Guardians of the Galaxy was, the film finally has a set release date. The lead up to this film has already begun, as a concept close to the comic book version of the property has been introduced this year into TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. That is a first and, quite frankly, something that should have been done with that TV show from day one. But, there is plenty of time before now and 2019 and there is no guarantee what we are seeing on TV will tie-in to this film.

And of course, there is still a lot of unanswered questions, some unanswered for quite a while, that we like to see answered. Such as:

  1. Will Black Widow ever get a film of her own? Will Hulk ever get another one?: The one I wanted to see happen after the first Avengers is for Hulk and Black Widow to have their own films. Those feelings came back in droves as I watched the trailer I posted above. There should be several films left on both Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo’s contracts with Marvel. Johansson is coming of Lucy, which opened at number one at the box office. Ruffalo is coming off an Oscar nomination. The time seems right for these movies to get made. Yet, as you can see above, we’re at least five years away from them getting made. This Hulk has distribution issues (any future film starring him will have to be distributed by Universal, not Disney, as per an iron clad prior agreement) but Widow should be on her way to theaters…eventually.
  2. Have we seen Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth’s replacements already?: As you might have heard, we are getting to the end of these actors’ original contracts. And while RDJ already added an extra film on to his contract and the fact that the last Avengers installment is in two installments might be an sign all of them are not willing to let this good thing end, there is a chance they might not all be coming back. Will Marvel Studios follow the James Bond paradigm and replace them with new actors, or will they take their cue from the comics? In the comics, James Rhodes replaced Tony Stark as Iron Man. Maybe Don Cheadle can replace RDJ as well? In the comics, both the Winter Soldier and Falcon became Captain America. Could Anthony Mackie or Sebastian Stan do the same in the film world? And the current Thor is a woman who may or may not be someone we’ve seen in the film continuity. But what if Loki replaced Thor on Marvel’s schedule. Fans have been clamoring for a Tom Hiddleston as Loki film. Give them one.
  3. Will we ever see a Runaways film? : This project has been in the works since 2008. One of Marvel’s greatest creations of the recent years, it supposedly has a killer treatment at Marvel. However, as the MCU began being lead by the Avengers films, there never seemed to be a place for it on the schedule. Phase IV seems to be a fresh start for the Marvel films. Maybe it will find purchase here?
  4. Is a similar arrangement like the one they have with Sony possible between Fox and Marvel?: The thought that Spider-Man would grace the same big screen as Iron Man and Captain America seemed like a pipe dream to fans as recent as last year. But it happened, in a deal that benefits all parties involved. Now fans want it all. However, Marvel does not have as good a relationship with Fox as it does with Sony. Add to that the X-Films are solidly successful for Fox, they aren’t quite as desperate for them as they were for Sony. A lot might change depending on the success of both the Sony/Marvel partnership and Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, if the former succeeds and the latter fails, Fox might change its mind. But don’t hold your breath.
  5. Will Marvel officially adapt a three film per year schedule?: As you can see above, Marvel has three films in 2017 (counting Spider-Man) and 2018. There is room in 2019 for another film as well. So has Marvel moved up to three films per year? It seems so, especially if Spider-Man’s new incarantion has the same success rate as his other incarnations. And about time. The market has shown to support these films, why not take advantage of that.
  6. What characters might be coming to the screen next?: Well, let’s try to take a look at some likely candidates. First, let’s start by looking at the films Marvel used for collateral to start their studio: Ant-Man, the Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Cloak and Dagger, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Power Pack, and, lastly, Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. The first five either already have been made into movies or have films announced. The other five have been passed over for Thor and Iron Man, whose rights weren’t with Marvel at the time the deal was made, and Captain Marvel, the Inhumans and Guardians of the Galaxy.
    There has been a lot of talk of a Nick Fury film, but Samuel L. Jackson is four years away from hitting 70, so its not likely he’ll be playing the part come five years from now. If Jeremy Renner ever becomes the box office star he showed potential of being when he signed on as Hawkeye, a solo film for that character could happen. Cloak and Dagger was once up for an ABC Family TV show, but they could benefit greatly from the Sony deal. The characters debut in a Spider-Man comic book and provided a counterpoint to him in many ways. Power Pack is an interesting concept, but seems more fodder for an animated film along the lines of Big Hero 6 and not part of the MCU. And Shang Chi does have the sweeping epic aspect Marvel films look for, however, the martial arts heroes seem to be reserved for Netflix and his main nemesis is Fu Manchu, a character owned by its original creator’s estate.
    As for characters Marvel got back, there is supposedly a Blade film in development. I’d assume that if Doctor Strange was a big hit, we’d see that character return to the screen. Same with Ghost Rider, who deserves a fresh start without Nicolas Cage. As for the Punisher, I’m afraid his time as a film star has passed.His next stop might be TV. And I’d doubt we’d see another Howard the Duck film, no matter how much buzz his GotG cameo generated.
    And for characters who have not achieved film fame as of yet, well, that could anybody they have left.

Join us next time when we look at the film success of Mark Millar.

 

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Don’t Call It A Comeback

Posted on 09 January 2015 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, as we return from another hiatus, we look at how the second chapter in the Marvel Studios’ story continued.

When we last left this column, Marvel Studios seem primed for a fall. While both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were financial successes, they were wobbly creatively. The former was a break from the series, placing Tony Stark not in a suit of armor, but in the role of a detective and the latter suffered from having too many characters and no plan on how to deal with them, resulting in a bland villain and lowered stakes.

And considering that 2014 would involve a sequel to Marvel’s second lowest grossing film to date and a film based around characters that the general public would not know at all, the chances of failure were fairly high. However, Marvel turned out what could have been a failure into a resounding success and, in the process, came out with two of the best films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

captainamericawintersoldierposterIf Marvel hadn’t already started working on the script before Captain America: The First Avenger, you have to wonder if that film would even get a sequel. After all, like I mentioned above, it was the second lowest grossing Marvel Studios film worldwide. Only The Incredible Hulk grossed lower, and we are still waiting for a sequel to that film (and probably will still be waiting for a long time). Granted, First Avenger doubled its production budget with its grosses, something that worked in its favor of getting a sequel, but Marvel dedication to its long range planning had to also play apart.

Director Joe Johnson would not be coming back for the sequel and Marvel had to look elsewhere for a director. Who they found was Anthony and Joseph Russo, a directing pair best known for their work in television comedies such as Arrested Development and Community. Their main forays into film were Welcome to Collingwood and Me, You and Dupree. Both film were comedies and neither exactly set the critical world on fire.

wintersoldier with shield - CopyIf the first Cap film was a style tribute to the jingoistic war films of the 1940s, this film was a nod to the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. Cap is now an operative of S.H.I.E.L.D. but does not agree with all of their tactics. He has right to, as the organization has been infiltrated by Hydra up to the highest levels, and those dirty tactics are part of Hydra’s long-term plan to make the world ready for their domination. Cap must run and fight for his life with friends old, Black Widow, and new, the Falcon. But Hydra has a deadly weapon of its own, the Winter Soldier, who it turns out is Cap’s childhood friend, Bucky.

Captain America gets criticized as a character for being too good–a boy scout. He is typically the moral center of any group he is in, and a character who will do what’s right no matter what the circumstances. He is the anti-antihero. Many comic readers consider him boring because of this, but, filmmakers were able to turn this quality into an asset.

captain-america-the-winter-soldierJust as in the first film, where Steve Rogers’ inherent goodness made him the only choice for the super-soldier program, his noble nature provides an anchor for viewers into the second film’s story. When you have snakes at every turn and you are not sure who you can trust, you need audiences to be sure that whatever your antagonist does is the right thing. And that is Cap’s M.O., doing the right thing. You believe that he could be the one man to do whatever it takes to bring the corrupt organization to its knees, and that he will not back down no matter what obstacles are put in his way. And the obstacles are huge–a government organization with unlimited resources. It was a giant David vs. Goliath story with notes taken from the real world politics. What’s more, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely was able to do what Shane Black and Drew Pearce couldn’t do with Iron Man 3, write a big story with high stakes without changing the character to fit it.

Markus and McFeely also improved upon their Thor: The Lost World screenplay, which they co-wrote with Christopher Yost, when it came to balancing the large cast. Each character has small moments in their film that define their character. Whether it be the Falcon volunteering to help veterans or Alexander Pierce going over old times with Nick Fury, we get just enough that the characters become unique individuals that we can invest our time in. The pair should also get points for introducing two plots from the comic books–the Winter Soldier and the Hydra infiltration both originated there–seamlessly into the film’s narrative and continuity. And in a world where sequels typically on present a slightly different version of the status quo, this film shook up the Marvel Cinematic Universe forever.

The Russo Brothers directed a taut, fast-moving thriller that was a reminder of how great Marvel films can really be. We would get another reminder a few months later when Guardians of the Galaxy was released.

GuardiansOfTheGalaxyPosterWhen Guardians of the Galaxy was confirmed to be in development back in 2011, it would be safe to say that I was a little stunned. Every Marvel property up to that point had had appeared in popular media before, be it cartoons, TV shows or movies. Yet, here was a concept that would be completely foreign to mainstream audiences, a concept that wasn’t even all that popular with comic book audiences. It at once showed Marvel’s commitment to mine all of its IP, no matter how obscure, but also proved that it would be Marvel’s riskiest gamble to date because they had to sell the concept to a public that had no prior knowledge to it.

The project appeared to get off on the right foot with the hiring of James Gunn as a director. Gunn was a writer and director who got his start in the Z-movie factory that is Troma Films. He eventually rose to the level of A-level movies with his writing, working on Dawn of the Dead and the Scooby-Doo series, and  B-movies in his directing, with his body-invasion horror film, Slither. But Gunn seem to genuinely be a comic book fanboy, having written the superhero parody The Specials and written and directed the realistic take on the vigilante, Super.

James Gunn-7The selection of Gunn did hit a bit of a speed bump in November of 2012 when a blog post he made in 2011 was dug up and made the rounds in geek media. The post, a list of the comic book characters his fans would like to have sex with, was full of misogynistic and homophobic language from Gunn. A petition was circulated on Change.com asking for his removal from the film, but the petition and the controversy was dropped after Gunn issued an apology on Facebook.

That wasn’t the only potential warning sign concerning the film. Another one was the casting of Chris Pratt, and actor best known as Andy on the TV comedy, Parks and Recreation, over other actors with action experience such as Joel Edgerton and Garrett Hedlund. This, added to the joke-filled first trailer, which can be seen below, led me to believe that this might be Marvel’s first flat-out comedy. This would have taken a risky venture and made it an impossible sell.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-still 1Of course, all of this worrying was over nothing. While the film did have its fair share of humor in it, the movie as a whole was a well-balanced offering. The film was reminiscent of a really good action/sci-fi film from the 1980s. It featured colorful characters, a team of strangers who come together for a common goal, nasty bad guys, and a kick-ass soundtrack.

Peter Quill (Pratt) was an Earth child who abducted into space at age 8 by a bounty hunter/treasure hunter named Yondu (Michael Booker). Yondu raises the boy and trains him a little bit too well in the art of deception, as an adult Quill decides to steal a valuable orb before Yondu can and cash in on the high price for the object. But before he can sell it, Quill is arrested and winds up in prison with Drax, a man looking for vengeance against the people who slaughtered his family  (Dave Bautista), Gamora, a woman called “Thanos’ daughter” who is looking to reform (Zoe Saldana), Rocket, a raccoon bounty hunter looking to return Quill to Yondu (voice of Bradley Cooper) and his muscle–a walking tree called Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel). When it becomes apparent that a radical member of the Kree race named Ronan (Lee Pace) wants the orb so he can destroy an enemy planet full of innocent people, the five have to join together to keep it away from him.

Pratt now seems like the only person who could have played Quill. Quill is a lovable rogue in the tradition of Han Solo, a tricky role to pull off. Having Quill be too nice minimizes the chance for bad behavior. Having him be too nasty makes the audiences not want to root for him.  Pratt struck the perfect balance.

Audiences responded to the film in droves, making into the number one highest grossing film of the year, an honor Marvel achieved last year as well. Marvel will also likely take the number one spot next year as well, when Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theaters. We’ll talk about that one next time, along with Ant-Man and what Phase III will hold.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: On To Phase II

Posted on 24 October 2014 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, as we return from another hiatus, we look at how the second chapter in the Marvel Studios’ story began.

Conventional wisdom states that when you have a monster hit such as The Avengers, it should be almost nigh impossible follow it. The odds of having another critical or financial success of that sort is astronomical, and everyone will be instead look for you to fail. The best approach to being in this situation was bring your A-game, provide your best work, and hope for the best.

The start of Marvel’s Phase II flew in the face of this conventional wisdom. The first two films of Phase II were two of the weakest Marvel put out, yet the gravy train kept rolling on.

Iron-Man-3-IMAX-poster1-405x600Phase II began the same way Phase I began, with an Iron Man film. This time, it was Iron Man 3. It would be the first film of Disney’s buy out of worldwide distribution rights from Paramount. That wasn’t the only change at play here, as Jon Favreau stepped down and handed the directorial reigns to Shane Black, who had directed Robert Downey Jr. eight years prior in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

My review of the film ran here, but to sum up, it was a pretty good  Shane Black film, but a fairly rotten Iron Man film. It had most of Black’s trademarks–set during Christmas, snappy dialogue, inexplicable kid characters who interact with the heroes, and a noir/detective feel. But that last trademark is where the film goes astray and ruins it for me in a big way.

Tony Stark is not a detective. There has been nothing in the past two films to show that aspect of his character. As a matter of fact, there is plenty evidence that shows otherwise. In the first film, he delegates. He sends Pepper Potts after the information he needs. In the second film, the answers to the film’s mysteries are handed to him, literally,by Nick Fury. In this film, he travels cross country, interviews suspects, hacks government files and a whole bunch of other detective-like things that he’s shown no talent or ability for in the past. All the while spending more time out of the suit than in it.

HTS0080_v001.1052_R.JPGThis all seemed like a means to an end. The character was changed to allow Black to work more in his wheelhouse, with the side benefit of giving Downey Jr. more face time out from behind a computer display. But in resulted in an Iron Man film with very little Iron Man in it.

It also showcased what would become a problem with the post-Avengers films. In a shared universe, when national landmarks and a large number of people die, and other heroes do not show up, it kind of defeats the purpose of a shared universe. You could make an argument about SHIELD not being there, as domestic terrorism not being their purview, but I’d like to think that Captain America would be on the scene.

Of course, the world didn’t have the same problems I had with the film. It made over a billion dollars worldwide, becoming the 6th highest grossing film of all-time in worldwide grosses. Critics viewed it favorable as well., earning it a 78% fresh.

thor the dark world posterFive months later, in November of 2013, we got our second entry into Phase II, Thor: The Dark World. As you can see in my review here, I liked it a bit more than I did Iron Man 3 but it was still a very flawed movie that paled in comparison to any of the Phase I films.

Like Iron Man 3, there was a new director for the sequel. Kenneth Branagh did return, and Marvel underwent search for a director to fill his shoes. Brian Kirk was first up, but left under contract issues. Patty Jenkins was hired but left shortly into preproduction over “creative differences.” Finally, Alan Taylor was picked to helm the film.

The main gripe I had about this one was the fact that there were too many characters for the plot, and, outside of Thor and Loki, characterization fell by the wayside. This was especially noticeable in the films villain, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith was nothing but a cypher. We are told to hate him (in a voice over narration, no less) because he wants to destroy the universe. But the character shows no passion, no fire, no drive. He is basically a figurehead to aim Thor at. The film would be infinitely better if Malekith was developed more, and, as it stands, it was a waste of a charismatic and interesting actor such as Ecceleston.

1383766022000-XXX-THOR-DARK-WORLD-MOV-JY-9666-59532890Of course, there was really no room for that sort of development. Malekith was put in line behind Odin, Frigga, Selvig, Jane Foster, Heimdall, Fandrall, Sif, Darcy, and others in terms of character development, and with that many characters, there was no way any one character could get anything more than a superficial development. The only characters who fare the best is Thor and Loki, if only because they are given a little more time to play off the characterization from previous films.

And the work Hemsworth and Hiddleston did is what raised this one to the level of an enjoyable film. Every time they were on screen together was electric and every time they were on screen separately was watchable.

Once again, the plot problems did not keep audiences away. The film made more than the sequel by its 19th day of release, moving toward a $644 million dollar worldwide pay day.

While the first two entries into Phase II were somewhat disappointing, Marvel more than made up for them with the next two. We’ll talk about them in our next installment.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Avengers Assembled

Posted on 26 September 2014 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, as we return from a brief hiatus, we look at how Marvel Studios’ crowning achievement, THE AVENGERS.

AvengersCapSmallIt must have been 1979 or 1980. I would have been seven or eight years old. Baseball cards were my passion, followed quickly by Star Wars action figures. But like many kids of that era, comic books were also a common source of entertainment for me. It was a casual buyer of them, primarily sticking to those featuring characters I knew from Saturday Morning Cartoons–Batman, Superman, Spider-Man–or kiddie books like Richie Rich and Little Archie.

theavengersHowever, it was around this time that I began expanding my comic book buying. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I developed a certain philosophy in my new discoveries–team books. You see, team books offered more characters for your buck (well, actually, at that time $.35), therefore you became exposed to more superheroes at one time.

Most of my forays into team books were in the direction of the Justice League of America title, because that team featured Batman AND Superman. However, I was open to exploring other team books, if the price was right.

One day, my mom and I were having something to eat at the luncheonette in the K-Mart  in the Pittston Plaza. As we walked in, I noticed a display of polybagged comics in the front of the store. This was a time when older comics were repackaged and sold two, three, or four a piece in plastic bags, typically for a couple pennies less than what you’d pay for all three at cover price. I immediately pestered my mom for money to buy a bag or two of comics for the ride home. She relented.

When I was done eating, I ran to the display. My eyes were drawn to one bag of comics in particular, featuring three issues of a title I was up til then unfamiliar with. The comic on the outside, facing towards the customers as the bag hung from its hook in the display, featured what looked like a statute walking over the prone bodies of a number of gaudily costumed heroes. Flipping the bag over, you’d find a comic with a number of the same heroes fighting a large stone creature on a tropic locale. The comic in the middle, which only part of the cover could be seen by sliding the comic on top of it either to the left or right, feature a man in a green costume punching another man in a green costume in the chest–only his fist had disappeared into the other man’s body!

Needless to say, this was all I needed to see to invest my $.89. And that $.89 led to a lifetime of being a fan, because the comic inside that bag gave me my first exposure to the Avengers (issues #157, 158 & 180 to be specific). And I was so blown away by what I read in those comic, I became hooked.

AvengersIt was nothing I had ever seen before. The teammates were as combative with each other as they were with their opponents (the two guys fighting on that cover above? They were teammates). And the team was defeated in each of the three books. That was something I never came across in my limited experience in reading comics. Granted, total defeat was avoided in two of the books by a timely intervention of a til then missing teammate, but the one ended in a cliffhanger, a cliffhanger it took me about twenty years to resolve.

So, I was hooked. Whenever I bought comics, it would be Avengers first, everything else second. It was after reading Avengers #227, the first issue of Roger Stern’s legendary run on the title, that I decided to become a comic book collector. I signed up for a mail subscription to the Avengers a few issues later. The Avengers was the first comic book series I actually completed, thanks to several stock options and a gifts from a totally awesome girlfriend/wife. I stayed with the title through multiple volumes and numerous spin-offs (from West Coast to New to Mighty to Secret and so on). It is safe to say, that the Avengers in all its forms and incarnations is my favorite comic book series.

And if you told this Avengers fanboy at any point before 2012, even after the “Avengers Initiative” was mentioned at the end of Iron Man,that I would see my favorite comic book team represented on the big screen, I would have laughed. Even after the film’s release date was set in stone and one of my favorite writer/directors was given the helm of the project, I still believed that nothing on screen would hold a candle to the comic I grew up reading.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

AvengersTeaserPosterThe Avengers was the culmination of Marvel’s foray into movies, the one thing everything had been leading to until then. And while it seems foolish in hindsight, the film was deemed a risk at the time. It was the first film released after Disney’s buying of Marvel, and its success or failure was seen as an indication of how wise a decision that purchase was. In addition, skeptics had a hard time believing the film could balance the characters who all starred in their own films without becoming a disjointed mess.

To help avoid that, Marvel hired Joss Whedon to direct the film. Whedon, who has some experience getting the most out of an ensemble cast from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, trashed Zak Penn’s script and wrote one where just about every character had a moment to shine. The only one who got the slighted was Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who spent most of the movie as Loki’s mind-controlled slave. It’s hard to develop a sense of characterization when for most of the film you are essentially a zombie. The other only other major problem I had with the continuity of the film was the Thor issue. At the end of Thor, a major plot point was that the hero was trapped in Asgard with no way to get back to Earth. A big deal was made about this fact. Here, Thor just pops up out of the blue, with only a throwaway line from Loki hinting that Odin used black magic to send Thor to Earth as an explanation. The matter was never addressed again.

Zak Penn’s script was not the only thing that Whedon got rid of. Also ceremoniously dumped was Edward Norton out of the role Bruce Banner. Norton was extremely hands on with the script for The Incredible Hulk, and the powers that be apparently didn’t want him to employ the same heavy hand with this film. He was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who went on to give a better performance than Norton would have, in my opinion.

Whedon, it would turn out, was the perfect choice for the film. He was a consummate filmmaker and a comic book geek, so he was uniquely skilled to deliver a film that was a great movie but with notes that would please the comic book faithful.

AvengersStreetFightThe comic book Cap is a natural leader. Whedon show this in a number of scenes in the film where Cap took charge, and not in a pushy way, but because he was the best one suited for the job. Thor and Hulk fought numerous times in the comics, Whedon gave us a dust up between the two in the helicarrier. The comic book Nick Fury is a shrewd manipulator. He’s even more of one in the film.

But the film was expertly made. There is a lot of humor, but in the right places. The climatic battle took up a half-hour of screen time, befitting the epic scale of the film. And even though the film was well over two hours, it was paced so well that you never noticed. And Whedon brought out the best in the actors too, especially Tom Hiddelston, Scarlet Johansson, and Clark Gregg.

Audiences came out in droves to see the film. The film broke all kinds of box office records, making over $1.5 billion worldwide, enough to become the third highest grossing film of all time. It changed the paradigm of American cinema for ever. For studios that did not have a comic book property it licensed, it looked for one to pick up. If a studio had a comic book franchise, it looked to expand it into a shared universe.

It also guaranteed that Marvel would go on to make a Phase II, which we will begin to cover next time out.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Hammer And Shield

Posted on 15 August 2014 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we look at how Marvel Studios’ star rose to highest heights by overcoming some bumps in the road.

comic book cap and thorAfter the success of Iron Man, Marvel Studios was ready to take some risks. The next two heroes they would tackle , Thor and Captain America, had some name recognition, but also some drawbacks. The former was a figure from Norse mythology who had a day of the week named after him, but was a fantasy character, a genre that does not play well on the big screen. The latter was arguably Marvel’s third most well known character, being referenced in everything from Easy Rider to a Guns ‘n Roses song. But he was also a jingoistic character being introduced into a film world where foreign grosses are so important and anti-American sentiment is very high.

However, Marvel needed to introduce Thor and Cap into the cinematic universe if it wanted an Avengers film to be made–comic book fans would never forgive them. So Marvel willingly tackled these challenges and more that came their way–including release date changes, shifting directors and writer’s strikes–in order to get these films made.

Originally, Thor was scheduled to hit June 4, 2010, just under a month after Iron Man 2, and Captain America on May 6, 2011, just two months before Avengers was to arrive on July 15 in that year. Unfortunately, in March of 2009, Marvel announced that the films would be pushed back–Thor to June 17,2011 (although later moved forward to May 6, 2011 to take the spot of the cancelled Spider-Man 4), Captain America to July 22, 2011, and The Avengers to May 4, 2012. Marvel stated the change was to “strongly sequence Marvel’s movie debut dates, big-screen character introductions and momentum,” but surely other reasons played a part as well.

One of those other reason might be the changing of the directorial guard that Thor went through. The first director hired by Marvel to helm the film was Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn was hired in August of 2007 and set about rewriting Mark Protosevich’s script in time for a late 2008 shooting date. However, Vaughn was off the project by May 2008 when his holding contract expired. Official word had it that he was released, but this wasn’t the first comic book film he walked away from. Who knows what the real story was?

Thor_posterThis set Marvel on a search for a replacement. Guillermo del Toro briefly considered joining on, but chose to devote his energies to The Hobbit instead. Marvel eventually chose Oscar Nominated-director Kenneth Branagh to helm the film in December of 2008, just a few months before the release date change was announced.

Branagh followed the Marvel template of casting award worthy actors in supporting roles, including Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as Odin, then-Oscar nominee and future Oscar winner Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, and Golden Globe winner Idris Elba as Heimdall, and casting relative unknowns in the leads. But what great finds those unknowns have turned out to be.

Chris Hemsworth made his name on Australian television at the time he signed on for Thor, but American audiences only knew him from his work playing Captain Kirk’s doomed father in 2009’s Star Trek reboot. But Marvel was ahead of the curve as Hemsworth went on to become a leading man of note in Hollywood, starring in films such as  The Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Dawn and Rush after Thor. But where he really excelled is in playing the God of Thunder, a man who was at once arrogant and charming, brave yet selfish, and cunning yet a bit obtuse. It was a hard role to pull off without the right actor. Hemsworth was the right actor.

But casting Tom Hiddleston as Loki was a stroke of genius. Like Hemsworth, Hiddleston was mainly known for his television work in Britain. He came over and auditioned for the role of Thor. He didn’t get it, but Branagh, who worked with Hiddleston before, most notably on the British TV series Wallander, offered him the role of Loki. Hiddleston attacked the role as if it was one of Shakespeare’s classic villains. Loki was vile and depraved, but Hiddleston made sure that audiences saw the hurt and pain that motivated all of his actions.

Casting Hemsworth and Hiddleston took away a lot of the risks involve in mounting Thor. If anyone else were cast in the roles, I doubt that the film would have been as successful. The comic book Thor and Loki were a bit staid and boring. Hemsworth and Hiddleston made them alive and vibrant.

ThorHammerThe film dealt with an exiled Thor, stripped of his position and power by Odin due to a poorly thought out attack on an ancient enemy of Asgard, stuck on Earth. While on Earth, Thor strikes up a romance with an astrophysicist named Jane Foster in preparation of his eternal stay on our planet. However, when Loki uses Thor’s absence and Odin passage into a deathlike sleep as a power grab, Thor must prove himself worthy to combat his half-brother, even if it kills him.

The film was good, much better than I’d ever think a Thor film could be. There was a lot of humor to go along with the adventure. I think making the Asgardians scientifically advanced aliens was a nice touch that kept the concept grounded with what had come before in the cinematic universe. The only major misstep the film took in my opinion was the romance between Thor and Jane. There was not enough time devoted to the pairing to make the love connection feel real.

The film was also a cameoapalooza. In addition to Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo, we had cameos from the film’s screenwriter and one-time writer of the comic J. Michael Straczynski, writer Walt Simonson and his wife Louise, and Marvel editor Ralph Macchio. But perhaps the biggest cameo was that of Jeremy Renner, who made an appearance as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Barton. Comic book fans instantly recognized him as Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye.

The post-credits scene focused on Nick Fury turning to Thor’s ally Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to investigate a powerful item called the Tessaract. Unfortunately, Selvig appears to be in the sway of Loki, which could only mean bad things.

It took several months for movie fans to find out more about the Tesseract (comic fans already knew it as the Cosmic Cube) in Captain America: The First Avenger.

captain-america-international-posterThis film also hit a development snag, this time due to the Writer’s Guild strike of 2007-2008. Marvel decided to make a separate agreement with the union to avoid delaying their production schedule any more than they had to. Joe Johnston was Marvel’s first choice for a director, brushing off offers from former Marvel directors Jon Favreau and Louis Leterrier to helm the film.

For Cap, they cast Chris Evans, an actor who at the time had performed in no less than five comic book films, most notable as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four films. I have to admit, I had concerns with this casting at first. Evans was known for playing glib smart-asses with a heart of gold. Except for the heart of gold part, that wasn’t Captain America. I wondered if they were making a major personality change in the character from the comics or did Evans have much more depth in him as an actor.

Thankfully, it was the latter. Steve Rogers is a tough role to play, as characters with strong moral values are hard to portray, or at least hard to portray convincingly. But Evans nailed it. He made a nice, honest, forthright man captivating, and made sure that we knew that Captain America was a hero before he ever got the super-soldier serum, the costume or the red, white and blue shield.

The film followed Steve Rogers, a man who desperately wants to serve his country as it toils through World War II. Unfortunately, Rogers is 4-F, and no matter how many times he tries to enter the army, they won’t  have him. However, his dedication to serving for all the right reasons catches the attention of a Doctor Erskine (Oscar Nominee Stanley Tucci), who thinks Rogers is perfect for his top-secret super soldier program.

Rogers goes through the process and turns from a 90lb weakling to the peak of human perfection. Unfortunately, before the serum can be used to create even more super-soldiers, Erskine is killed by assassins sent by the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a German who received an early version of Erskine’s formula.

At first, the government keeps Rogers safely away from the front lines until they can figure out Erskine’s formula. However, when Rogers’ childhood friend Bucky Barnes is captured by the Red Skull’s Hydra (an organization composed of Nazis that even Hitler thought were too extreme), Rogers defies orders to rescue his friend.

The bonus scene was essentially a commercial for the next year’s The Avengers.

Truth be told, I am a huge Captain America fan. He is my second favorite comic book character of all time, so I was predisposed to like this film. But I loved it. I loved the World War II setting, I loved Evans’ performance, and I loved the way they remained true to the comics while still making the film stand on its own. The only thing that gave me pause was the introduction of Hydra as an enemy to fight. At first, I thought it was a way to back away from having him fight Nazis, a classic film villain from Casablanca all the way through Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in order to make it more palatable for international audiences. However, I now see it as a way to give Cap and the rest of the heroes a tyrannical villain to fight even in modern times.

Next time up, we will close out Phase I with the film that changed Marvel, comic book films, and cinema in general forever–The Avengers.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Man And Iron Man

Posted on 01 August 2014 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we cover the event that changed the world of films forever–the formation of Marvel Studios.

MarvelStudiosLogoIn 2004, films based on Marvel Comics characters were lighting up the box office. Once a laughing stock in Hollywood, where if a Marvel film actually got made it it was a flop, the Marvel characters became cinematic gold. However, through the deal Marvel made to get its characters on the screen, they did not have complete control of the films being made, only got a sliver of the profits and were at the whim of other studios as to when the films were scheduled. Marvel decided that it was time to take more control of its cinematic output.

MarvelCharactersMarvel brokered a loan with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. for $525 million dollars with the rights to ten movies as collateral. Today, this deal looks like a can’t miss proposition. But back then, it was incredibly risky. The main reason why it was so risky can be seen in the ten properties Marvel used as collateral/intended to make films out of. The biggest name of the ten was Captain America. The rest of the list were filled by B-list characters such as Nick Fury, Black Panther, Ant-Man, Cloak & Dagger, Dr. Strange, Hawkeye, Power Pack and Shang-Chi. The tenth concept was The Avengers, Marvel’s supergroup which likely would bear very little resemblance to comic book version of the team.

Why? Because at the time the loan was taken out, the rights a majority of Marvel’s most popular characters, including many longtime members of the comic book Avengers, were owned by other studios. Fox owned the rights to the X-Men and Marvel’s mutant characters, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Sony/Columbia owned Spider-Man, Ghost Rider and Thor. New Line held the rights to Blade and Iron Man, Lionsgate the rights to the Punisher and Black Widow and Universal the rights to the Hulk. And the nature of these rights agreements, signed by a Marvel that was desperate to see its characters in movies, was that the studios would hold the rights as long as they kept making films with the characters, unless they were willing to give up the rights or sell them back to Marvel.  This left Marvel with a catalog of little known characters and the prospect of and Avengers film that would not feature founding members Hulk, Iron Man or Thor.

Perhaps Marvel knew something the world didn’t, as the film rights to some of their characters started coming back to them. They got Iron Man back in 2005, Hulk and Thor in 2006, and Black Widow sometime after. While these weren’t Spider-Man or the X-Men, characters that might never revert back to Marvel Studios, they were characters that were more known by the general public than Hawkeye or Shang-Chi.

Marvel knew this and almost immediately put Iron Man into production. The film would be the first released through Marvel Studios’ distribution agreement with Paramount Pictures.

ironman-posterNot that Iron Man was a slam dunk option. The property had spent 16 years in development hell before Marvel got the rights back, being dumped from Universal to Fox to New Line in the process. Directors ranging from Stuart Gordon to Nick Cassavetes had been attached to the project, but no one could seem to capture the essence of the character. However, this all changed when Marvel got its hands on it.

The formula Marvel used to become a cinematic juggernaut is on display from the very beginning. It picked Jon Favreau for a director, whose limited resume at the time had fans complaining about the selection. For Tony Stark, a role that had caught the eye of such highly-paid luminaries as Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise, Favreau hired Robert Downey Jr., an Oscar-nominated actor who was in the midst of climbing out of the deep hole his noted drug abuse had left his career in. Before the film came out, these seemed like incredibly risky choices. After the film came out, they were seen as strokes of brilliance.

The film also establish the trend of casting actors with Oscar-pedigrees in supporting roles, in this case Jeff Bridges as villain Obidiah Stane, Terrence Howard as best friend James Rhodes, and Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow as assistant/love interest Pepper Potts.  It also established that while Marvel would be making changes to the source material to make a better film, it would keep the tone of the work intact.

ironmanThe film features arms developer Tony Stark in Afghanistan, demonstrating a new weapon he designed. Things take a turn for the worse when his caravan is attacked and he is kidnapped. In the attack, a piece of shrapnel is lodged close to his heart, and he has to design a reactor to keep it in place. This reactor, which he wears on his chest, also comes in handy when he needs to build a suit of armor to escape his captors.

Stark returns home a changed man. He decides to move his company away from building weapons of war while he continues to refine his armor to use as a weapon of peace. But doing away with weapons manufacturing does not sit well with  Stark’s mentor and partner, Obidiah Stane, especially since he was illegally selling arms to terrorist organizations around the world. Stane decides to build an armor of his own and confront Tony in order to finish the job the terrorists started.

The film also started another trend in comic book films–the post-credits button scene. Iron Man ended with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) telling Tony Stark about an “Avengers Initiative.” Regular audiences were intrigued and comic fans swooned.

The film was an enormous success, both critically and financially. It made $585 million worldwide against an $140 million budget, allowing Marvel to pay back a big chunk of that loan almost immediately. It also set the world on notice–Marvel Studios would be a force to be reckoned with.

incredible hulk posterThe next Marvel hero to get the Marvel Studios treatment was Hulk. Marvel got the rights for the character back after Universal missed the deadline to put a sequel to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk film into production. Universal would still retain the distribution rights to the film, but the movie would become the second Marvel Studios production.

While Hulk made a profit of about $107 million, Ang Lee’s artistic choices did not sit well certain fans or Marvel executives. So Marvel decided to take the risky choice of doing a reboot of a film that had just released only five years prior.

Actually, The Incredible Hulk was less a pure reboot than an ipso facto sequel to the popular 1970’s TV series, with tone and plot elements similar to that work. The film also could work as a soft reboot/sequel, as the character is in hiding in a foreign land at the start of the film, which was where the character was at at the end of Ang Lee film. That is, if you were eilling to ignore the changes made to the origin to fit with Marvel’s shared universe.


Louis Leterrier stepped into direct and Edward Norton signed on to replace Eric Bana as Bruce Banner as well as take a pass on Zak Penn’s screenplay (this will become more important later on). Once again, Marvel looked to the list of Oscar winners and nominees to fill their supporting roles, casting Oscar nominee Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky/Abomination and Oscar winner William Hurt replacing Sam Elliot as General Ross.

NortonHulkHeader1The film tells that Bruce Banner was experimenting with gamma radiation in order to replicate the experiment that gave Captain America his powers during World War II (an easter egg later deleted from the film showed the Hulk passing by a block of ice in Antarctica that looked like it had Cap in it). Unfortunately, an accident exposes Banner to a great deal of radiation, cursing him to become a large green behemoth every time his heart rate goes up. Banner goes on the run to try and find a cure for his condition, while General Ross chases after him to bring him back as he considers the Hulk to be government property.

Robert Downey Jr. turns up in the tag scene as Tony Stark, informing General Ross about the Avengers initiative, thereby officially creating the shared universe the Marvel films reside in.

The film was more of a conventional comic book film than Hulk–no split screens, no exploration of daddy issues–and was obviously intended to lead to a sequel. However it became the only Marvel film in release not to have one. The film was just about as much of a success as the 2003 version, and sequels were talked about, but none came from it as of yet.

Part of this was might be due Norton’s insistence on being involved in the writing. Norton was replaced in the role of Bruce Banner in The Avengers by Mark Ruffalo, and Norton’s wanting a hand in the creative side of the film was rumored to be the reason. However, Norton had company as being an actor that was replaced by Marvel.

IronMan2PosterIron Man 2 introduced James Rhodes’ alter ego War Machine into the films, but it was Don Cheadle, not Terrence Howard donning the armor. Marvel parted ways with Howard in October of 2008. Howard said in a 2013 interview, still stinging from the dismissal five years later, that Marvel came to him to force him to reduce his salary. Howard was the first person signed for the film, and therefore received the highest salary. He balked at the idea of a pay cut, so Marvel got someone else to play Jim Rhodes.

Howard blamed his ouster on a cash grab by Downey Jr. (“It turns out that the person that I helped become Iron Man, when it was time to […] re-up for the second one took the money that was supposed to go to me and pushed me out,”he said in the above interview), but other sources claim that Jon Favreau, who reportedly did not like working with Howard, was the “villain” in this piece. But, in the end, Marvel simply replaced one Oscar nominee with another, with Cheadle providing more in the role than I think Howard would, in my opinion.

Cheadle was not the only new face in the film, and not the only one who would have a bigger role to play in the cinematic universe.

ironman2blackwidowIn this one, Tony is dealing with the repurcussion of announcing he was Iron Man at the end of the last film, a process made more difficult as he discovers that an element in arc reactor that keeps him alive is killing him. His life is further complicated by Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of a former partner of Tony’s dad who blames the Stark family in his family’s misfortune.

Vanko is aided by Stark’s business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who hopes to eliminate his main competition. Luckily, Tony has some new allies on his side as well, including his buddy Rhodey in a version of Stark’s armor dubbed War Machine and a seductive S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow played by Scarlet Johansson. The tag scene begins what would become the trend in these sort of scenes from then on. It features Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) in the middle of the desert, finding what would be Thor’s hammer. From then on, the tag scene would act as a tease of the next film in the line.

The film didn’t do as well in reviews (although, it had a hard act to follow) but did well enough financially to get a sequel. We’ll talk about that in two installments, but next we wrap up Phase I when Cap and Thor join the party, and The Avengers are finally united.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Rider Wrong

Posted on 18 July 2014 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we cover the two painful enterprises that were the GHOST RIDER films.

nic-cageLet’s not be mistaken, Nicolas Cage is not a comic book fan.

Does doing animated features connect with your love of comic books? Look, the truth is I’m not obsessed with comics. I don’t read comics as a 49-year-old man. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but I have other interests that are more in tune with where I’m at right now.–Cage in a December 10, 2013 interview with London’s Metro newspaper.

So, despite tons of empirical evidence to the contrary–such as his taking his stage name from the comic book character Luke Cage to his once owning a comic book collection worth millions to writing a comic book with his eldest son to naming his youngest Superman’s real name (Kal-El) to being attached at various times to star in Constantine, Spider-Man, and Superman Lives, and being cast in Kick-Ass and the films we are talking about today, Nicolas Cage is not a comic fan. This means that the rest of us comic book fans do not have to hold back in saying how absolutely terrible he was in the Ghost Rider films.

Marvel-Spotlight-005cGhost Rider was created by writer Gary Freidrich, artist Mike Ploog and editor Roy Thomas in the pages of 1972’s Marvel Spotlight #5. Ostensibly an update of the western character of the same name that Marvel published during the 1950s, the concept was also very indicative of the times.

Motorcycle culture was big in the late 1960 and early 1970s. The counter culture movement caused a rise in popularity–and notoriety–to outlaw biker gangs such as the Hell’s Angels. This notoriety translated to the big screen as an exploitation genre as films about biker clubs exploded, including such films such as The Wild Angels, The Born Losers, and Psychomania. Many of these films portrayed the biker clubs as roaming bands of homicidal maniacs and few portrayed them as in league with the devil.

This period  was also when stunt motorcycle rider Evel Knievel came into popularity after a failed attempt to jump his motorcycle over the fountains outside of the Las Vegas Caesar’s Palace casino in 1967. He’d do a lot more jumps of the next decade or so, breaking a lot of bones and garnering a lot of imitators, becoming a pop culture icon in the process.

This all happened as a giant change was hitting comics. For almost 20 years, the Comics Code Authority had been keeping a close eye on the world of comic books. They paid particular attention to horror comic books, prohibiting them from using vampires, werewolves, the undead or any sort of reference to the occult. However, by the early 1970s, the Code started relaxing its restrictions on such horror tropes, and Marvel Comics capitalized on this new freedom, publishing titles such as Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night and Son of Satan.

All of these influenced Freidrich, Ploog and Thomas as they created Ghost Rider. He was Johnny Blaze, a skilled motorcyclist who sold his soul to the Devil to save the life of his cancer-stricken foster father, the barnstorming motorcycle daredevil known as Crash Simpson. The devil did cure Simpson’s cancer, only to have him die in a fiery bike wreck just a day later. While Blaze felt cheated, a deal was a deal. The Devil cursed Blaze into becoming a flaming skeleton anytime the sun set. This curse came with a number of beneficial powers, powers Blaze used to fight the Devil’s influence on Earth.

GhostRider_vol_2_issue_1The concept proved popular enough to get its own series in 1973, one which lasted 10 years and 81 issues, outlasting the craze that helped spawn it. The concept was revisited in 1990 with a new series that featured a new character, Danny Ketch, taking over the role.  This series lasted 93 issues and introduced new powers to the hero, including a “Penance Stare,” where Ghost Rider would look into a victim’s eyes and force them to relive the pain and suffering they inflicted on others, and a chain that Ghost Rider could control and use to inflict damage on his enemies. Marvel would return to the concept a number of times over the years, and currently has a version being published where Ghost Rider drives a car instead of a bike.

With such an unique origin and striking visual image, it was only a matter of time after the comic book movie genre started gaining steam that Hollywood would take notice of the character. The process started back in 2000, when the rights were bought by Crystal Sky Entertainment. The film soon landed at Dimension Films with David S. Goyer writing and Steven Norrington set to direct. Johnny Depp expressed interest in the role, but he was beat out by Cage, who actively campaigned for the part.

ghost_rider_posterThe project went into turnaround at Dimension, but was later bought out by Columbia Pictures. Norrington left due to the delay, and was replaced by Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson, who rewrote the script. Cage was joined by Eva Mendes as his love interest Roxanne Simpson, Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles, Wes Bentley as Blackheart and Donal Logue as Mack.

Production began in February of 2005 and was completed that June. In an ominous sign, the film was set to be released in August 4, 2006, moved to July 14th, then pushed back to February 7, 2007, two years after it started filming.

The film was not without its charms, however, these charms were not enough to overcome the serious problems the film contained.

You have to give credit to a demon biker movie that casts Peter Fonda, star of a number of outlaw biker exploitation films that influenced the character, as the devil himself. Some scenes are beautifully shot and Johnson did a good job melding all the various and sundry incarnations of the character–even the Wild West version–into one film.

GR StillBut the overall film is sloppy. Blame has to start with Cage. The actor manages to reign in his hammy over acting, saving it for the scenes when he transforms into the Ghost Rider, but what we get instead isn’t much better. What we get is a low-key Elvis impersonation (if Wild At Heart was Cagelvis cranked up to 10, we get a Cagelvis at 3 or 4 here), fleshed out with character tics such as eating red and yellow jelly beans out of martini glasses, a child-like obsession with monkey documentaries, and an inexplicable love for the music of the Carpenters. You know, stuff we all have in common. But it doesn’t belie the fact that Cage is too old for the role. The film tries to paint Johnny Blaze and Roxanne Simpson as childhood sweethearts of approximately the same age, and then cast Eva Mendes, who is 10 years younger than Cage, as the present-day Roxanne. Cage looks foolish trying to act a decade younger than he actually is.

Of course, the reason why Cage has to resort to character tricks is because there is no characterization in the script. No time is developed to build up the characters. Why are Johnny and Roxanne sweethearts? Because the script tells us they are. We are supposed to be sad when Johnny’s dad dies, but there is little in the way of defining the father/son relationship before the death scene. Blackheart’s minions are a set of interesting powers but have no discernible personality between them. And for all their fancy powers (based on the elements of Air, Earth and Water) they provide absolutely no threat to Ghost Rider whatsoever.

ghostrider_lThis, of course, leaves the actors with little to work with. Mendes does well with what she is given but she isn’t given much. Fonda tackles his role with the zeal of a man picking up his prescriptions at the local CVS. Wes Bentley gets singled out in most reviews as the worst actor of the cast, and he is miscast, but it’s not fair to single him out because his character is underwritten. The film never sells Blackheart as a serious threat and Bentley simply is not equipped to make up the difference. The only member of the cast that comes out looking good is Donal Logue, who manages to inject a fair amount of life into the stock “best friend of the hero” archetype he was cast in.

The film is full of holes and inconsistencies, both in plot and in production. It is stated in the film that Blaze can turn into Ghost Rider at night or when confronted with great evil. Then it becomes at night AND when confronted by great evil. Then it becomes whenever there’s a little shade around, he can turn. It is noted that the bad guys cannot step foot in a graveyard because it is “consecrated ground” but have no problem traipsing through churches with impunity. Ghost Rider’s power is so immense that if he travels full speed down a city street that the macadam will melt, cars will flip over in the air, and parking meters will turn into puddles of goo. Well, unless he is chased by the cops, because none of that happens in a chase scene later in the film.

It is also fun to see the same extras in the crowds of two separate Johnny Blaze stunt performances in two separate cities or a scar that to about ten minutes of screen time to get stitched up disappear in the very next scene that takes place only a few hours later. Where’s a continuity editor when you need them?

new and old ghost riderThis bouillabaisse of awfulness culminates in the climax, where Blaze meets up with the Ghost Rider from the old west who in turn leads him to the final battle to the sounds of a rock version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” It’s a pretty badass scene and relatively smart too. Blackheart has been kicking Johnny’s but the whole movie, why not even the odds a little bit by throwing two Ghost Riders at him?

Only, we don’t get two Ghost Riders. After they reach their destination, the old Ghost Rider powers down and rides away. Seeing it in the theater, I thought that the filmmakers were doing the special effects ran out of money for the climax, a thought that was reaffirmed when Nicolas Cage went after Blackheart for most of the climactic battle not as Ghost Rider but as Johnny Blaze, armed with only a shotgun no less.

I can go on. I can spend paragraphs talking about how bad the dialogue was (“Any man that’s got the guts to sell his soul for love has got the power to change the world. You didn’t do it for greed, you did it for the right reason. Maybe that puts God on your side. To them that makes you dangerous, makes you unpredictable. That’s the best thing you can be right now.”) or how Johnny’s decision to keep the curse at the end of the film makes no sense other than to keep the possibilities of sequels open.

However, the film made money. Although it barely made $5 million more than its $110 million budget in the US, it made another $112 million overseas, making it enough of a hit that it garnered a sequel five years later.

GhostRider2PosterMuch like Punisher: War Zone, this was more of a soft reboot than a pure sequel. Johnny Blaze was more active in choosing to sign his soul away (in the first film, Mephistopheles tricks him into signing by giving him a paper cut and letting a drop of blood land on the signature spot. Really) and being more proactive in wanting to get rid of the curse.

The action takes place in Eastern Europe (most likely because it was cheaper to shoot there, the sequel cost only $57 million to make, just a little more than half the budget of the original), as Johnny Blaze is called on to protect a young boy who is intended to become a vessel for the devil (This time played by Ciaran Hinds). However, Blaze must struggle with the Ghost Rider, who has become a true spirit of vengeance, attacking any human who had just a little bit of sin in them.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceI reviewed the film here. At the time, I thought the sequel was better than the original, but, having re-watched the original, I’m not so sure. The sequel is plagued with the same clunky script problems the original suffered from, including plot holes big enough to jump a motorcycle through. There is still hammy over acting, which is good when Hinds or Idris Elba is doing it, not so much when it’s Cage or Johnny Whitworth. And, once again, Ghost Rider’s powers fluctuate whenever the script needs them to.

The film made only a paltry $132 million worldwide, but considering the film cost so little to make, it still came back with a sizable profit. There was brief talk of another sequel, one without Nicolas Cage, but the rights holders saw the diminishing returns and allowed the right to revert back to Marvel. Marvel has no plans for a Ghost Rider film in the near future.

Which is a shame. I think there is still untapped potential in the concept. I think a Grindhouse take on the subject would work, and Nicolas Cage aging out of the role is a good thing. Maybe if we get a little bit farther from these film, Marvel will give it another shot.

Next time up, we will get to the film series that turned the world of comic book films on its ear: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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HISTORY OF COMIC BOOK FILMS: The Rise And Fall Of Frank Miller

Posted on 04 July 2014 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we cover the meteoric rise, and the controversial fall of the legendary Frank Miller.

Lionsgate Presents "The Spirit" Screening In New YorkYou can engage in a healthy debate as to what was high point of Frank Miller’s career. Some might say it was when he took over the writing chores on Daredevil in 1980, because that set up the legendary run that paved the way for everything else. Others might say that it was 1986, when his masterpiece, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was released. A few might say it was in 1991 when he created Sin City, the creator-owned property that caught Hollywood’s eye.

Personally, I am leaning towards 2007. He was coming off two successful adaptations of his original properties and was tapped to do the unheard of–to write and direct a film adaptation of a comic created by one of his idols. However, this date is problematic because his artistic decline in the world of comics had started years earlier.

Frank_Miller youngYou can call Frank Miller’s rise in comic books meteoric. Yes, he got his start as many creator is the late 1970s did–doing art in anthologies and fill-in stories to help regular artists out. But while many creators languished in this freelancer hell for years before getting steady work, Miller was hired as the regular artist on Daredevil with issue #158 in under a year. Granted, when Miller joined the title, it was practically on life support. It was one of Marvel’s lowest selling titles, and was moved to a one every two months shipping schedule.

The book was flirting with cancellation when Miller to over the writing duties on the title to go along with his art chores starting with issue #168 under a year later. Odds are that if the book wasn’t in such rough shape, he might not have received this unprecedented chance. But he did, and he became a superstar over it.

Daredevil 168Miller turned a character that was essentially a poor-man’s Spider-Man, only with a negligible handicap (blindness, more than over compensated by a radar sense) and a less impressive rogue’s gallery, into something special. Miller turned the book in to a crime noir fable with Asian overtones. The character spent as much time fighting ninjas as he did crime bosses. But the stories Miller created fit his cinematic art style and lifted the character to a place in prominence. Without Miller, Daredevil would never have been made into a film, and most likely be a curiosity lining the dustbin of Marvel’s once popular characters.

After completing his run on Daredevil, Miller moved on to DC Comics and one of their most famous characters, Batman. His Batman: The Dark Night Returns featured an older, retired crime fighter who feels compelled to put the cape and cowl back on as the world slips into lawless anarchy.

If Miller’s take on Daredevil was comic book film noir, then his take on Batman was comic book film noir on steroids. And acid. With a little crystal meth thrown in for good measure. It was a shockingly daring deconstruction of the sacred DC institution, one that could not happen in the Intellectual Property focused world of today.

1-1The series was incredible influential. Along with Watchmen, it inspired a “grim and gritty” trend in comics, got a lot of attention in the mainstream press and inspired the cinematic versions of Batman that followed in its wake. If Daredevil made Frank Miller a superstar, Dark Knight Returns made him a legend–both in and out of comic books.

Miller used his newfound status and power to the fullest advantage. He first stepped his toes in the Hollywood pond by doing the screenplays to RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 in the 1990s, although that experience left a bad taste in Miller’s mouth.  That decade was also when Miller moved on to creator-owned fare.

Miller used Dark Horse Comics as the publisher of his original creations, and his first offerings were the thoughtful, if uber-violent Hard Boiled (which he did with Geoff Darrow art) and Give Me Liberty (which he did with Dave Gibbons on art). His third effort, which he did art as well writing on, was the one we’re talking about today.

Dark_Horse_Presents_Vol_1_51Sin City first appeared in serialized form in Dark Horse Presents #51, and showed what Miller could do with his noir stylings when not hampered by working on another company’s characters. Printed in black and white, which help accentuate Miller’s art work and his use of shadow and shading. Sin City told the story of Basin City, a corrupt and morally bankrupt town where even the good guys have a little bit of dirt on them and the women are as tough as they are beautiful. It’s a town where cops are easily bought, the prostitutes take care of themselves, and crossing the wrong people will inevitably lead to your death.

This was an example of world-building at its finest. It was a fun house mirror reflection of the graft and crime that plague American cities, with an element of the fantastic to it as well. Sin City eventually became a blanket heading for all the crime noir Frank Miller wanted to write. It was home to a number of different stories, and often times a supporting character in one story arc would become the lead in the next, and someone who appears in the background would prove to be very important later on down the line.

The series caught the attention of director Robert Rodriguez, who desperately wanted to make a film of the graphic novel. However, Miller, who was burned by Hollywood before, was reluctant to let his baby be fed to the Tinseltown Wolves. Rodriguez was insistent, and created a short film with his own money from one of Miller’s Sin City tales to show that he was going to be respectful to the original text. The short film became “The Customer Is Always Right,”  which became the opening segment of 2005’s Sin City. Yes, Rodriguez’s passion and dedication one Miller over, but I’m sure the offer of co-directorship helped too.

sin city posterThe test footage also got Rodriguez an awesome, all-star cast, including Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan, and many, many more. It would be hard not to make a great film with the cast that Rodriguez had, and a great film he did make.

The film looked like Basin City was magically transported from the page and pasted to the screen. It was one of the first use of extensive green screen technology, and this helped Rodriguez create a visually stunning, realistic yet ethereal world for the movie to take place in. The film was co-directed by Miller and Rodriguez, with Quentin Tarantino on board directing one scene. The result was a film that looked quite unlike any other film ever made, and one of the most faithful comic book adaptations of all time.

The film made over $158 million worldwide at the box office against a $45 million budget. It seemed audiences were responsive to films that did a shot-by-shot, green screen backlot adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novels. This was good news the the producers of 300.

3001The film was based on Frank Miller’s 1998 miniseries retelling the historic Battle of Thermopylae from 480 B.C., where a small group of  Greek soldiers were able to hold off the vastly superior forces of the invading Persian army for three days during the second Persian invasion of Greece. The battle has been inspiration for or referenced in numerous poems, novels and movies over the centuries. Miller himself has often referenced the battle in Sin City so his choosing to build a whole graphic novel around it is not surprising. 

From an artistic standpoint, it was one of Miller’s best works. The story was presented in nothing but double-paged spreads–where the graphics are designed to spill out over two comic book pages and, unlike Sin City this one was masterly colored by Miller’s then paramour and go-to colorist, Lynn Varley.

However, critics were quick to point out the historical inaccuracies in the work (Alan Moore even famously quipped “You know, I mean, read a book, Frank.”) and made issue with certain homophobic statements by the characters.

300-posterThese criticisms did not stop filmmakers from wanting to adapt Miller’s version of the battle, especially Zack Snyder, who long wanted to helm the adaptation of the graphic novel. He would eventually get his chance when he was hired in 2004 to bring the comic to the screen. Snyder and Miller’s version beat  another movie about the battle that was spearheaded by director Michael Mann into theaters. Mann’s version has yet to come to fruition.

The film was shot almost completely on a sound stage in front of blue screens.   Snyder used the comic as a story board, with numerous scenes captured on screen almost exactly as they appeared in the comic book. It wasn’t an exact translation, however. Snyder did add scenes back in Sparta to flesh out the story more.

Snyder capture the grandeur and grittiness of the comic book. His film is incredibly stylized, and his “stop/go” slow motion technique employed here briefly became his trademark. Snyder definitely grabs your attention.

The film, like the comic before it, also spawned controversy. In addition to the questions of historical accuracy and homophobia, critics singled out what they thought was a fascist agenda, a negative portrayal of people disabilities and Iran was none too pleased with how the Persians were seen in the movie. However, none of this stopped the film from becoming a hit. The film made more than it’s $65 million budget in its opening weekend in America alone, going on to a worldwide gross of over $456 million. It jump started the careers of Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender and made Snyder a go-to director for comic book epics. It also spawned a sequel.

300RiseOfAnEmpireMondo300: Rise of An Empire was supposed to be based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller called Xerxes, named for the Persian leader. Only one problem, Frank Miller never got around to writing that sequel to 300, so producers had to come up with a sequel on their own.

Also missing were Butler and Fassbender (except in a flashback to the first film) and Zack Snyder handed the directorial reins over to Noam Murro, but still keeping a hand in writing and producing the film. The sequel acts as a counterpoint to 300, focusing on events that happened before and during that film as well as after. The main crux of the story is the battle of Salamis, a naval battle that set the stage for the Greeks finally repelling the Persian invasion. Sullivan Stapleton take over the lead as Themistocles of Athens.

You couldn’t help but feel that something was missing because, well, a lot WAS missing. But, nonetheless, even though it failed to earn back its $110 million budget in its US release earlier this year (earning just over $106 million), it tripled its budget worldwide with over $331 million in grosses.  No word if another sequel will be wrung from the Second Invasion of Greece.

After the one-two punch of Sin City and 300, Frank Miller was Hollywood’s darling. They weren’t sure what it was about him that resonated with audiences, but they knew it was something. So even though he had only a handful of screenwriting credits to his name and only one co-directorship under his belt, producers hired Miller in 2006 after the success of Sin City to write and direct the long-in-development The Spirit. The success of 300 made them feel much better about their decision

They really should have done their due diligence, because Miller’s comic book work at the time would have told them exactly what they were getting into.

220px-DarkKnightStrikesAgain1From 2000 on, Miller’s comic book work has been a case of diminishing returns. It all started with the ill-advised The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Instead of a tersely plotted examination of the mythos behind the heroes of the DC Universe that marked the original, one that balanced grim and gritty realism with a finely tuned sense of the outrageous, what the sequel delivered was Miller’s tone deaf characterization and a book where the outrageous and cartoon-like chased and sense of realism out the window. It was a sloppy presentation, and one that tarnished the original masterpiece it followed.

Miller wasn’t done with Batman yet. In 2005, he paired with superstar artist Jim Lee on All-Star Batman and Robin. I reviewed the first three issues here, and my opinion of how awful it was has not improved since that review was published. Once again, Miller loses the hold he had on Batman’s characterization, only this time he makes him a petulant and whiny child abuser who might just be clinically insane. The story went absolutely nowhere over the ten issues that were published, a fact not helped by the title’s chronic lateness (three years to publish ten issues). The series has been on “hiatus” since 2008, and it’s telling that no one has been clamoring for it to be completed.

Holy_Terror_coverMiller’s third attempt at doing a Batman story for DC is the one that sounded bad from the get go. Holy Terror, Batman! was Miller’s commentary on the War on Terror, using Batman as a surrogate, sending him after Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Eventually, according to Miller, he removed the project from DC Comics because he decided it went too far for Batman. I’m sure DC didn’t mind it leaving. So Miller took the cape off of Batman, gave him some guns and took the novel to Legendary Comics. The result, renamed Holy Terror, is a jingoistic screed filtered through Miller’s extreme right-wing views (he made the papers for his condemnation of the Occupy movement in 2011) that was as inflammatory as it was poorly written.

Miller, in interviews at the time, came off as a man who believed his own hype a little bit too much. Everyone called him a genius, so he was one. And everything he touches is automatically perfect because of this, no matter how poorly written it is. Unfortunately, this attitude was encouraged. His Martha Washington Dies, the coda to his Give me Liberty series, featured 17 pages of an elderly woman talking to a group of undefined soldiers on a battlefield, about to fight in an undefined war. After she is done talking, she dies. If a novice writer submitted this to a comic book company, the editor would put his name on a dry erase board marked ” Never Hire This Person.” Since it’s Frank Miller, they slap a glossy cover on it, charge $3.50 for it, as shill it to the fans.

But this was in the field of comics, where he paid his dues and made his legend. Certainly his attention to quality would be sharper in his feature film debut? Unfortunately not.

the-spirit-posterThe Spirit was a tough character to bring to the screen. Will Eisner created a character that could move freely from crime noir to whimsy to adventure. It was a tone that filmmakers from William Freidkin to Brad Bird couldn’t bring it to the big screen in a way that would please the studios. It seemed like that they would never find a creator who got the character and could capture its essence.

However, they thought they found one in Frank Miller. Miller was a friend and follower of Eisner (he was actually offered the job directing The Spirit at Eisner’s funeral). If he couldn’t bring the character to the big screen and do it justice, no one could.

Well, apparently, no one could.

Frank Miller’s The Spirit was relentlessly awful. It was aggressively awful. And not in a “so-bad-it’s-good” way either. It was bad in a “so-bad-why-am-I-watching-this” way.

For a man who was so protective of his own comic work, Miller certainly didn’t have any qualms about messing with Eisner’s most famous characters. Eisner’s Spirit was a charming man with a winning personality. Miller’s Spirit was was a bland cypher whose only flash of personality came when he spewed Sin City-esque doggerel. Eisner kept the Spirit’s nemesis, The Octopus, hidden to increase his mystery and allure. Miller put the Octopus front and center on screen, cast Samuel L. Jackson in the role and apparently only gave him one direction-chew as much scenery as possible. Jackson is probably still picking splinters from his teeth today.

Eisner’s women were legendary. They were sultry and seductive and you totally believe that the Spirit was tempted to join them on the dark side. Miller’s decided to put most of Eisner’s femme fatales in the movie, cast some of the most beautiful in the world, and makes each of them as exciting as expired toothpaste.  Eisner’s stories were filled with gentle wit and humor. Miller’s humor was crass, crude and campy. While Rodriguez and Snyder used the green screen to create a rich and fully realized world, Miller used the same technology to create a murky and muddled mess that looked like some one spilled a big pot of India ink over it.

In other words, The Spirit was a failure on every single level. Miller’s inexperience showed through, yet so did his arrogance. He thought he was creating art. What puzzles me is how it went through without anyone saying how horrible it was.

Miller has not made a comic book since Holy Terror, but he will have a chance to redeem himself cinematically as he reteams with Robert Rodriguez next month as the Sin City: A Dame to Kill For hits theaters.

Frank_Millers_Sin_City _A_Dame_to_Kill_For_17The film adapts two of Miller’s stories from the comics in addition to, and this is the worrisome part by Miller, two original stories written directly for the screen. A lot of the original cast returns, including Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, and Mickey Rourke, joined by newcomers such as Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green and Lady Gaga.

Perhaps going back to Basin City will be the best thing for Miller. Perhaps it will mean a return to quality for the legend. However, it will take a lot to over come the damage Miller has done to his legacy. This might not be enough.

Next time: Ghost Rider.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Accept Your Punishment

Posted on 18 April 2014 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we cover Marvel’s most popular vigilante, THE PUNISHER, and the unsuccessful attempts to build a film franchise around him. 

mikezeckpunisherHow is this for a film-ready concept? A man takes his wife and two children on pleasant picnic in the park. Unfortunately, it happens to be in a part of the part where a mob hit was being held. Being discovered, the mobsters kill the man’s family in front of his eyes, and leave him for dead. Only, he didn’t die. He survived and began using his military training to hunt down organize crime. He becomes a vigilante to make the streets safe.

Sounds good, right? It’s pretty close to the back story of Paul Kelsey, Charles Bronson’s character in the Death Wish films, a fairly successful franchise in and of itself. So a film based around the above character should be golden, right? Wrong.

Well, this is the backstory of the Punisher, a Marvel character who holds the distinction of being a three time loser when it comes to starting a film franchise in his name. The question is why?

THE-PUNISHERThe first attempt at bringing him to the big screen was in 1989 in the form of Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher. I already covered this film in the series here, so I won’t go over that familiar ground again. I will say that I find it hard consider that film a serious attempt to bring the character to the screen, especially considering that financial difficulties prevented the film from getting a U.S. release.

Budgetary concerns were also an issue 15 years later when the character actually did appear in the film that was released in the States. Jonathan Hensleigh asked for a budget of $64 million for his version of The Punisher. He got less than half that from Artisan Entertainment with $31 million. This meant the shooting would take place in Florida, not New York. It meant that the script had to be rewritten time and time again to keep it under budget. And, since most of that budget went to the cast, effects and scenes had to be done on the cheap.

Although, considering what we got for that money, we don’t know if adding more cash would have made the film any better.


Punisher2004posterThe Punisher was a case of Hensleigh, who not only co-wrote the script with Michael France, but also made his directorial debut with the film, not understanding what his audience wanted. He thought if he threw in characters from the comics such as Joan, Mr. Bumpo, Spacker Dave and the Russian, he’d be free to disregard anything else that made the comic book character great. He also thought as long as he threw mindless action at audiences, they’d willfully ignore some of the idiotic shortcut he made in the narrative.

You don’t have to wait long for the first misstep. Frank Castle, a.k.a The Punisher, played by Thomas Jane, is now an F.B.I. agent who kills the son of a crooked businessman in a sting operation. The businessman, Howard Saint (Jazz Traveltini), decides to get his revenge by having all of Castle’s family killed.

Lucky for him, the Castle family was having a large family reunion not long after. So, not only does Castle lose his wife and children, but also his mom and pop, Aunt Mitsy, his sister and her no-account dork of a husband ,and that strange cousin who smells like Vicks who you only see once every five years. Ante, you have just been upped!

I’m sure Hensleigh thought that by turning the original “eye for an eye” trope into an “eye for an eye for an eye” and upping the number of dead Castles would be just the type of “more” audiences would eat up. He was wrong.

thomasjanepunisherThe fact that the death of Castle’s comic book family was brought on by a random twist of fate adds pathos to his origin. If he had his picnic in another park or another time of day, his family would still be alive. But forces beyond his control put him and his family there in that very spot. In the film, his own actions put his family at risk. His family’s death was less random, it was just his past coming back to haunt him. The former way works better dramatically.

And the massacre at the family reunion was, no pun intended, overkill. It was as if Hensleigh didn’t think a father watching his kids die, or a husband watching the woman he loved expire, had enough emotional impact. It did and does. Having every single member of his extended family might have seemed like a sure-fire way to push Castle deeper into the valleys of mourning and depression (while making Saint seem like much more of a menace), but what it really told audiences is that the film will be bigger than the comic, but not necessarily better.

Another example is how the Punisher is portrayed on the screen. For me, the character works best when he is direct. He finds a target, he kills the target, he moves on to the next target. This is not to say there is not a certain amount of planning that goes on, but none that slides over into the Machiavellian. So, The Punisher taking out a bad guy’s money laundering operation, that’s fine. His breaking up a partnership Saint had with a pair of drug runners, okay, that could work. Manipulating Saint into falsely believing his right-hand man was having an affair with his wife so Saint would kill them both? That’s a bit too much.

castle and russianBut my biggest problem with the film had nothing to do with the comic books. About halfway through the film, there’s a scene where Castle goes up to a Sheriff holding a press conference and basically says “I’m Frank Castle, and I want to know why you haven’t found my family’s murderer.” This annoyed the heck out of me because it was essentially a phony way of jacking up risk at the expense of the plot and characterization. Yes, it was presented as Castle wanting to let Saint know he was still alive. But why would he want do that? He was an FBI agent who has worked undercover and he had spent some time in the military. He should know that being off the radar would have some advantages. He could strike at Saint’s organization methodically without calling attention to himself and putting his mission of vengeance, and the people around him, in danger.

But, no, we get the big reveal at the press conference. I think the real reason why the scene was included was because Hensleigh wanted to have Saint send the Russian and, well, Sam Club’s Johnny Cash after him and put the neighbors he met in danger. That’s it. He wasn’t thinking of the story or characterization of even if it made sense. He had a result he wanted, this was the easiest way to get there, so it happened.

punishersainttoroLuckily, the film was saved from being completely awful by Jane’s performance and that of his supporting cast. Unfortunately, it opened opposite Kill Bill Vol 2, and, really, if you were looking for an action film to go see, wouldn’t you rather see that one instead? Many fans thought that, as The Punisher opened in second place with half the weekend grosses of  Kill Bill Vol 2. It would go on to just barely earn it’s budget back domestically, and only $54 million worldwide.

Those numbers might not seem like the kind that would warrant a sequel, but a sequel was in the works before The Punisher even hit theaters. The plan was for Jane and director Hensleigh to return, with The Punisher facing off against Jigsaw in the film. However, script problems stalled development, causing Hensleigh to leave. Scripts were worked on over the next four years by Stuart Beattie and a pre-Sons of Anarchy Kurt Sutter. Sutter’s script was reportedly final straw for Jane, who backed out of the film due to his dislike of it.

Sutter’s script was rewritten Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Hollway (so much so that he took his name off the film as only one scene of his remained) and Leni Alexander was hired as director. And in 2008, Punisher: War Zone was released to an unsuspecting world.

punisherwarzoneposterI believe that this film was probably as close to the comic book version of the character as we’re going to get. You had the feeling that Hensleigh was trying to turn what would work best as a cheesy action film into a Greek tragedy. Alexander went the opposite direction and traveled down the Grindhouse road, earning the R-rating fans were clamoring for. From the opening, where Frank silently dispatches a mob family–one with a chair leg to the eye–to the gory origin of Jigsaw to the finale, where Castle must shoot his way through a three story hotel full of bad guys, the film had enough over-the-top blood and violence to satisfy fans of the character and the genre.

Ray Stevenson takes over for Jane in the lead role, and, being five years older, adds a sense of world-weariness to the role. The film is less a sequel than a soft reboot (the origin is referred to once, and the body count is only Castle’s wife and children), but it falls more in line with the comics’ Punisher as a driven force of vengeance.

raystevensonpunisherI’m not saying that Punisher: War Zone should knock Citizen Kane off the top of any top ten lists, or even that it is a great film. But if you are a fan of the Punisher and hyper-violent shoot ’em ups, then this film is the better Punisher film of the two.

Unfortunately, not enough people saw the film to make up their own opinions. The film debuted at #8 the weekend it was released, and only made $8 million worldwide, way below its $35 million budget. It was a flop in every sense of the word and killed the Punisher’s cinematic life dead. Lionsgate let their option on the character elapse, allowing the rights to revert back to Marvel. Marvel appears to be in no hurry to bring Frank Castle back in live-action, as the character has yet to appear in the studios far range plans for its characters, either in film or on TV.

The character does have its fans, one of which is Thomas Jane. During the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, he released a short film sequel to his version of the Punisher titled Dirty Laundry.

Next time, we take on another much maligned marvel movie franchise, Fantastic Four.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: The War Over WATCHMEN, Redux

Posted on 07 March 2014 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. Today, we once again interrupt our regularly scheduled program to cover new information about a film we already covered, Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

silver snyder watchmenIn terms of bringing Watchmen to the big screen, Joel Silver would be the alpha, and Zack Snyder would be the omega. Silver was the producer who first started process of bringing Alan Moore’s seminal work to theaters, but it was Zack Snyder who was able to finish the job. So, the two diverse and opinionated power players will be forever inexorably linked. But this doesn’t mean that they have to get along.

Through a serendipitous coincidence, Silver and Snyder produced films that were released a week apart. Silver is a producer on Non-Stop, which opened last week and Snyder is a producer on the sequel to his film 300, 300: Rise of an Empire which opens today. If the two films were released further apart, Snyder wouldn’t have just a quick turn around on answering Silver’s comments on his version of the Watchmen and I’d be writing about the Alien vs. Predator franchise like I had originally planned.

joel silverJoel Silver was interviewed by ComingSoon.net in conjunction with Non-Stop‘s release, and, as these interviews typically go, the interview spanned Silver’s entire career. Naturally, the topic of Watchmen came up. And since the bombastic Silver is never one to shy away from expressing his opinions–at length–we get exactly what he thought of Snyder’s version, and how his would have been much, much better:

CS: Speaking of ones that got away, as a die-hard Terry Gilliam fan I have to know if there’s anything juicy you can tell me about his conception of “Watchmen”?
Silver:
It was a MUCH much better movie.

CS: Than the one Zack Snyder made…
Silver:
Oh God. I mean, Zack came at it the right way but was too much of a slave to the material.

CS: Agreed.
Silver:
I was trying to get it BACK from the studio at that point, because I ended up with both “V For Vendetta” and “Watchmen” and I kinda lost “Watchmen.” I was happy with the way “V” came out, but we took a lot of liberties. That’s one of the reasons Alan Moore was so unpleasant to deal with. The version of “Watchmen” that Zack made, they really felt the notion. They went to Comic-Con, they announced it, they showed things, the audience lost their minds but it wasn’t enough to get a movie that would have that success. What Terry had done, and it was a Sam Hamm script–who had written a script that everybody loved for the first “Batman”–and then he brought in a guy who’d worked for him to do work on it [Charles McKeown, co-writer of “Brazil”]. What he did was he told the story as-is, but instead of the whole notion of the intergalactic thing which was too hard and too silly, what he did was he maintained that the existence of Doctor Manhattan had changed the whole balance of the world economy, the world political structure. He felt that THAT character really altered the way reality had been. He had the Ozymandias character convince, essentially, the Doctor Manhattan character to go back and stop himself from being created, so there never would be a Doctor Manhattan character. He was the only character with real supernatural powers, he went back and prevented himself from being turned into Doctor Manhattan, and in the vortex that was created after that occurred these characters from “Watchmen” only became characters in a comic book.

CS: That’s fascinating. Very META.
Silver:
Oh yeah. So the three characters, I think it was Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they’re all of the sudden in Times Square and there’s a kid reading a comic book. They become like the people in Times Square dressing up like characters as opposed to really BEING those characters. There’s a kid reading the comic book and he’s like, “Hey, you’re just like in my comic book.” It was very smart, it was very articulate, and it really gave a very satisfying resolution to the story, but it just didn’t happen. Lost to time.

CS: Things happen for a reason, it might have changed the whole landscape of superhero movies right now as well.
Silver:
But I did like the movie, very much. Zack did great stuff in it!

I suppose before I go any farther, I should talk about the Alan Moore’s ending to the Watchmen series, which Silver briefly touches upon above. For as great as the series was, as ground breaking as the series was (more on what I thought here), it’s ending, in my opinion, was pretty damn awful. So, consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

Watchmen monsterIn the comic, Ozymandias’ grand plan to stave off nuclear annihilation was to create a giant, hideous creature, and then teleport the living, breathing creature into Midtown Manhattan, where it would promptly die, killing millions as it releases a psychic backlash as it undergoes its death throes. The nations of the  world would think this was the beginning of an alien invasion, and would put aside their differences to to unite to combat the supposed foe from outer space. The plan goess through and works.

Not only was Moore’s ending a swipe, inadvertent or not, of an old Outer Limits episode, but also it was a garish break from the realistic sci-fi of the rest of the series. Yes, you had a character that was a walking nuclear bomb, but at least his existence was explained by some pseudoscience. The beast’s didn’t get quite the same treatment.

On top of that, the plan doesn’t seem to be one that would work that well. You mean to tell me that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. wouldn’t be back at each others throats when the rest of the aliens failed to arrive? And the beast itself, the government wouldn’t chop it up to see how it worked? They probably find out a lot about it, perhaps even Ozymandias’ role in its creation.

Anyway, the ending did have to be changed for the film, on that I agree with Silver. I don’t agree necessarily that his ending was that much better.

The ending Silver describes corresponds with a Sam Hamm script for the project that I read years ago, one I spoke about here. The only other major changes I recall from that script would have been a tacked on action sequence where the heroes faced off against a superpowered villain at the Statue of Liberty (which would obliterate Moore’s deliberate plot choice of having Doctor Manhattan be the only superpowered being in the story) and removal of all the ephemera (the Minutemen, the Tales of the Black Freighter, etc) from the source material.

But the ending, well, it was a Twilight Zone ending with none of the irony that made Twilight Zone endings great. It kind of laid there on the page. Obviously, we were supposed have our mind’s blown, but the way it was presented, in an almost laughable way, it fell flat.

There are several things to take into consideration with Silver’s statement. One, you have to realize that Joel Silver is a producer in the Hollywood tradition of old, where he is a bombastic promoter of everything he puts his name on. Of course, he would think his version of Watchmen would be better. It’s not in his DNA to say any different. And another thing is while Silver made it sound like this ending was Gilliam’s idea, it definitely came from Hamm. Granted, I wasn’t privy to any communications between the parties in 1988, and how much influence Gilliam had on the script, but the ending came from a script with Hamm”s name, and only Hamm’s name on it. If Gilliam was so enamored with Hamm’s script, why did he bring McKeown in to rewrite it? Because he wanted to change it. Who knows if the ending was one of the things Gilliam wanted to change?

zack snyderBut thanks to Silver, Gilliam was thrown under the bus, and is being viewed as the bad guy in this. Well, at least in Zack Snyder’s eyes. Only one week later, talking to The Huffington Post while promoting 300: Rise of an Empire, Snyder and his wife Deborah decided to address Silver’s words–by taking a shot at Gilliam:

Was “Watchmen” the most “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” project you’ve ever been a part of? Now Joel Silver is criticizing you for being a “slave” to the source material while touting a very different from the source material script that Terry Gilliam was going to film.

Zack Snyder: It’s funny, because the biggest knock against the movie is that we finally changed the ending, right?

Right, you used Dr. Manhattan as the threat to bring the world together as opposed to the alien squid.

Zack Snyder: Right, and if you read the Gilliam ending, it’s completely insane.

Deborah Snyder: The fans would have been thinking that they were smoking crack.

Zack Snyder: Yeah, the fans would have stormed the castle on that one. So, honestly, I made “Watchmen” for myself. It’s probably my favorite movie that I’ve made. And I love the graphic novel and I really love everything about the movie. I love the style. I just love the movie and it was a labor of love. And I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway and they would have made it crazy. So, finally I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.

In Gilliam’s version, Dr. Manhattan is convinced to go back in time and prevent Dr. Manhattan from existing. But the specter of his existence is the threat to the world, which is kind of what you did at the end of the movie anyway.

Zack Snyder: Right, of course. It’s just using elements that are in the comic book already, that’s the only thing I did. I would not have grabbed something from out of the air and said, “Oh, here’s a cool ending” just because it’s cool.

Deborah Snyder: But it’s interesting because, you’re right, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You have people who are mad that the ending was changed and you have other people saying, “Oh, it was a slave to the graphic novel.” You can’t please everybody.

Zack Snyder: And that’s the problem with genre. That’s the problem with comic book movies and genre. And I believe that we’ve evolved — I believe that the audiences have evolved. I feel like “Watchmen” came out at sort of the height of the snarky Internet fanboy — like, when he had his biggest strength. And I think if that movie came out now — and this is just my opinion — because now that we’ve had “Avengers” and comic book culture is well established, I think people would realize that the movie is a satire. You know, the whole movie is a satire. It’s a genre-busting movie. The graphic novel was written to analyze the graphic novel — and comic books and the Cold War and politics and the place that comic books play in the mythology of pop culture. I guess that’s what I’m getting at with the end of “Watchmen” — in the end, the most important thing with the end was that it tells the story of the graphic novel. The morality tale of the graphic novel is still told exactly as it was told in the graphic novel — I used slightly different devices. The Gilliam version, if you look at it, it has nothing to do with the idea that is the end of the graphic novel. And that’s the thing that I would go, “Well, then don’t do it.” It doesn’t make any sense.

I can’t imagine people being happy with that version.

Zack Snyder: Yeah! If you love the graphic novel, there’s just no way. It would be like if you were doing “Romeo and Juliet” and instead of them waking up in the grave area, they would have time-traveled back in time and none of it would have happened.

Between this and his response to the casting controversy over Batman Vs. Superman, Snyder is coming off as a man with a larger than normal ego but with thinner than normal skin. This is not a good combination for a Hollywood player, especially one whose milieu is comic book adaptations. Reading Snyder’s response, you’d think that Joel Silver accused him of being a being the antichrist and of selling kidnapped babies on the black market. You’d think that Silver’s remarks were a vicious and petty slam on his genius, and that he didn’t say anything nice about Snyder’s Watchmen at all. Well, Silver’s comments are reprinted verbatim above. You can see that that wasn’t the case at all, unless of course, the kids these days consider “But I did like the movie, very much. Zack did great stuff in it!” the biggest diss in the world. OOH, SNAP!

Actually, scratch that. You’d think Terry Gilliam did all those things. Snyder doesn’t mention Silver once. But he is more than ready to place all the blame on Gilliam’s feet. I especially love the exceptional arrogance when he says that he was saving Watchmen from the Terry Gilliams of the world. Listen, Zack. I know this is hard to hear, but you really, how do athletes put it, you can’t hold Gillaim’s jock strap. Uh, uh, I know what you’re going to say. Stop. I have three titles for you. Time Bandits. Brazil. 12 Monkeys. Your argument, no matter what it is, is invalid.

secondwatchmenteaserI will give Snyder credit for one thing. His ending is better than either Hamm’s or Moore’s. He is correct when he says it ties into the story better and is more effective in reaching Ozymandias’ goals. And I do grasp the satiric bent Snyder was going for, and I got it when the film first came out. I knew the costumes in the film were meant to be a commentary on the latex, nippleriffic costumes of the first Batman franchise and others. However, the other changes did not work quite as well. The extended sex scene totally misses the point of the Dan/Laurie pairing from the novel and has the strong odor of crass titillation to appeal to the lowest common denominator (and also shoots a hole in Snyder’s claim about being interested in being true to the tone of his source). And having the heroes, all essentially athletes at the top of human potential, be able to kick bad guys six feet in the air or turn bricks to dust with their punch was very distracting from the narrative.

But outside of this, the film is way to faithful to the source material. That criticism is valid. What many comic fans (or fans of any media that is adapted to film) fail to realize is that films are different from comics. There’s a different machinery at play. What works in a 12-issue miniseries will not work in a 2 hour movie.

I’ll admit, the fanboy in me did get a certain amount of glee from hearing dialogue taken directly from the comics repeated verbatim from the mouths of the actors. However, at times the film was less a film, and more a rote, less visceral recap of the graphic novel. I felt myself forming a mental checklist of the plot elements that Snyder was bringing to the screen instead of getting lost in the story, like I should have. And a lot was lost in the translation. Snyder didn’t adapt the elements from the graphic novel, he presented them. And his visual style took a lot away from Moore and Gibbons’ style. The result? It was a faithful adaptation that lost a lot of the grit and gravitas of the original. That’s my main criticism of it.

Wrapping up, I consider the Terry Gilliam Watchmen one of the classic lost films that we’ll never have the opportunity to see. If he was able to make the adaptation work,I doubt that the final product would have resembled the Sam Hamm script in the least. It might not have resembled the comic either, but it would have been inventive and imaginative. But we will never know what we would have got because we didn’t get it. Therefore, it’s silly for Snyder to say his version is better than the one we would have received from Gilliam. But the fact that he felt so threatened as to say that really says a lot about Snyder and his personality. And what it says is not very nice.

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